Team GB will make a welcome return to football at the Olympics when the women’s team competes for the second time ever after making its first appearance as hosts in 2012.
An agreement was reached in the women’s game to allow the top-ranked Home Nations side to compete in Tokyo, provided they qualified for the previous World Cup.
That means Team GB’s flag will be raised during the women’s soccer in Tokyo, but what about the men? Well, it’s another no-show from them, with politics once again being a factor in what has been a long and curious history with the football tournament and Team GB.
Britain hasn’t had a men’s football team at the Olympics since London 2012 2012
Team GB has only appeared at one Olympics in Rome since 1960 in a curious history
Rather than starting at the beginning, it is best to look at the current state of play as a result of the recent one-off appearance at the London 2012 Games after qualifying as the host nation.
If ever a clue was needed that the squad was largely made up of English players, they made it to the quarter-finals before going on penalties.
However, Stuart Pearce’s side also featured a number of Welsh stars in what was the first time Team GB have returned to the event in 40 years and the first time they have qualified since 1960.
Despite the disappointing defeat to South Korea, the screenings generated enough enthusiasm to explore the possibility of registering a team for future tournaments.
The problem was that there is no mechanism for a ‘British team’ to qualify. On the men’s side of the game, teams from Europe must reach the semi-finals of last year’s European Under-21 Championship to qualify. With this competition where Team GB’s candidates are split into their home countries, this means that a mixed team of British players is an impossible concept.
Team GB’s women’s team returns to the Tokyo Games after their performance in 2012 (above)
So three years after London 2012, the men’s team idea remained dormant, until England Under 21 manager Gareth Southgate helped submit a proposal to the FA that encouraged exploring the Olympic entry for player development.
Olympic teams are made up of squads of players under 23 (under 24 this year due to the delayed matches) with three age limit players allowed, and Southgate thought that teams like its Young Lions were missing the opportunity to gain valuable experience.
The FA held meetings with football governing bodies from the other Home Nations about entering a British team for Rio 2016 through a power of attorney from the English side, provided they qualify. But this was abruptly discontinued by all their rivals.
This still stands today, but despite having not competed since 1960, Team GB still remain the record winners of the tournament with three triumphs – although it is all over 100 years ago now.
The men’s football team won a second gold medal at the 1908 London Games
Four years later they held on to gold and their overall wins of three have not been eclipsed since
Football was first featured at the second Games held in Paris in 1900, but by today’s standards it was a farce of a competition. Only three countries entered, and by countries we mean local teams, with Team GB being represented by a side known as Upton Park – which has no affiliation with West Ham.
The tournament consisted of just two games, both played by France, who defeated Belgium 6-2 but lost 4-0 to Team GB. No gold medals were awarded at the time as they were demonstration events, but the tournament has in hindsight that Team GB officially got gold despite only playing one game!
After failing to compete in the St. Louis Games, Team GB returned to home soil for London 1908 and took gold with the English amateur team – repeating their success in Stockholm four years later.
After the war, the world began to catch up and the English amateurs were defeated in the first round by Norway at the 1920 Games in Antwerp.
Shortly afterwards, a feud arose between the FA and FIFA, with the FA wanting the Olympics to remain only amateurish, while FIFA was eager to present a tournament featuring the world’s best players.
Team GB clash with Denmark in a sparse Wembley stadium during the 1948 London Games
Fans would turn out to be watching Team GB’s amateurs compete at Wembley in the 1956 Melbourne qualifier. Despite losing the tie 5-3 to Bulgaria, Team GB were still moving forward
This led to the FA leaving FIFA, and as football’s popularity continued to rise around the world, the latter encouraged the latter to eventually set up the World Cup in 1930.
In protest, Team GB refused to participate in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, while the 1932 Los Angeles Games were not about football at all.
Team GB returned for the 1936 Berlin Games in Nazi Germany, made up of the first roster of Home Nations amateur players who were defeated by Poland in the quarter-finals.
After the Second World War, a period of stability came when British amateurs took part in every Olympics until 1972. The 1948 London squad, led by future Manchester United manager Matt Busby, took fourth place, but that was as good as it gets.
A 5-3 extra time loss to Luxembourg in the Helsinki preliminaries in 1952 was followed by a quarter-final departure to Bulgaria in Melbourne with an English FA side chosen after a withdrawal of support from other Home Nations, before leaving the group stage in the 1960 Games in Rome.
Scotland spawned promising youth players in the early 1990s including Paul Bernard (left) and Craig Burley who would have qualified for the Olympics, but the Scottish FA had long feared losing their national status by competing under a Team GB name
Team GB was unable to qualify for the next three tournaments because the amateur player drafting restriction worked against them. Such was the rapid advancement of the professional game in the UK, their pool of players to choose from became weaker against countries that had yet to grow or expand their professional leagues, giving them a much wider range of talent to choose from.
When the concept of amateur and professionals was no longer recognized by the FA in 1974, the governing body stopped participating in the Olympics and remained the status quo until 2012, when the current qualification method was implemented to reach the competition.
What hope is there of a men’s team returning to Britain? It is extremely unlikely that a team with players from the Home Nations could compete in the near future, but a setup similar to the women’s, with one country representing Team GB, could always be an option.
It’s a scenario the FA welcomes, but the idea is being opposed by Scottish, Welsh and Irish counterparts who fear a Team GB in a future draft might weaken their hand as a sovereign nation under FIFA’s jurisdiction.
England boss Gareth Southgate believes the Games are useful for player development ontwikkeling
The Scottish FA have long held this belief, even when their side could have represented Team GB in 1992 and 1996 after technically qualifying through the European Under-21 Championship.
Intriguingly, FIFA has come out in recent years and said the threat to the home countries’ independent status is no longer an issue.
In 2016, FA chief executive Martin Glenn claimed: “FIFA has indicated that it is not a problem.
“The great fear in the past was that if we did it, we would jeopardize our status as an independent country. But that was settled under (former FIFA president Sepp) Blatter actually and (new president) Gianni Infantino reinforced it.
FIFA president has assured home countries that their single nation status will not be jeopardized if their teams choose to compete in the Olympics under Team GB banner
“So that’s not the issue. It is about the individual interests of each country of origin. There is an interest in Britain, which we are all a part of, but does it fit the individual interest of (each) home nation? And we’re going to work on that.’
There are also other home country concerns outside England, with the British Olympic Association having the FA as the official governing body – although this is a problem that could be easily resolved by working a rotation system with the other associations in the UK.
Other opponents come from Premier League clubs who would be frustrated if they lost players during a pre-season or the start of a campaign.
Obviously, there are a few hurdles to overcome before Team GB returns to the men’s Olympic football competition, but with a breakthrough on the women’s side of the game towards Tokyo, there is always hope. Never say never.